BROSSARD, Que. – It was a promising start to the season for Carey Price and now the goaltender that Montreal Canadiens fans either love or loathe will get his chance to perform on home ice.
After splitting away games—a 3-2 loss in Toronto and a 3-2 win in Pittsburgh—the Canadiens play their home opener against the revamped Tampa Bay Lightning at the Bell Centre on Wednesday night.
Price has been on the hotseat since management opted to trade Jaroslav Halak, the hero of Montreal’s run to the NHL Eastern Conference final in the spring, and go with the 23-year-old who struggled to a 13-20-5 record last season.
In pre-season games, Bell Centre fans either cheered a little too loudly or booed a tad too long as Price started weakly but got better as the season approached.
”That’s over,” Price said after practice on Tuesday. ”I’ve played a lot of home openers in my life and this is just another one.
”We’ve done all we can to prepare for the game and we can’t think about anything else.”
Price was particularly sharp in Pittsburgh, where a handful of glittering saves among his 36 stops held Montreal in the game long enough to win on late goals by Michael Cammalleri and Scott Gomez.
”He stole that game for us,” said defenceman Josh Gorges. ”He made four or five big saves that kept the score what it was and gave us a chance to win.
”He was spectacular and that’s the way he needs to be for us to be successful.”
It was an eventful two games. Cammalleri sat out the first with a suspension and then scored twice in Pittsburgh, while rookie defenceman P.K. Subban drew an admonishment from Don Cherry on “Hockey Night In Canada” for lacking respect after he yapped at superstar Sidney Crosby.
The atmosphere at home promises to be electric with the first visit by rookie coach Guy Boucher, who was hired away from Montreal’s AHL farm team in Hamilton, as well as the Lightning’s Quebec-born stars Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Simon Gagne.
It will be a first real home game for newcomers Dustin Boyd and Jeff Halpern (and backup goalie Alex Auld), and a first game of the season for veteran defenceman Roman Hamrlik, who missed the first two with a sore knee.
Hamrlik skated on the third defence pair with Ryan O’Byrne in practice and is to be eased into action.
It will also be a first Canadiens home opener for Subban, the slick-skating 21-year-old who played major minutes in the playoffs and has become a key member of the defence.
”It’s going to be exciting,” he said. ”To make it to this point is pretty exciting.
”It’s the first home opener in my (NHL) career. It should be fun. I’ll have my family here. And it’ll be fun playing against Guy and Dan and Marty. But we’d like to get the two points here.”
Subban spent most of last season in Hamilton for playing for Boucher and the two assistants he brought with him to Tampa—Daniel Lacroix and Martin Raymond.
Subban made his presence known in Pittsburgh, where he was seen shouting face-to-face with Crosby and later had to go for repairs after taking a high-stick to his left eyelid from Mike Comrie.
Cherry called Subban a ”good kid,” but added that ”he’s got to show a little respect.”
He also suggested that Comrie’s high-stick was payback for the Crosby incident, although it looked accidental on replays. If it was intentional, Comrie would no doubt have a talk with league disciplinarian Colin Campbell.
Subban said he has ”tremendous respect” for Cherry, whom he has known since playing minor hockey in Toronto, but took issue with the notion of not showing it to the league’s established stars.
”What is respect?” said Subban ”Respect is not playing dirty, respect is playing an opponent and not cheap-shotting them.
”But hockey is a game that has to be played a certain way and if you’re not competitive, you’re going to lose. So I play the game competitively. I know that Sidney Crosby is going to do the same thing and so is everyother player.
”As a guy just coming into this league, I’m also trying to make a mark for myself and make sure I’m doing my job when I’m out there. That’s all I’m focused on—doing what the coach asks me to.”
With Hamrlik out and with top defenceman Andrei Markov still about a week away from returning from knee surgery, Subban averaged 23:21 of ice time per game—most so far among rookie defencemen in the league and second on the team to Gorges’ 25:02.
He has been paired with Hamrlik’s usual partner Jaroslav Spacek, while Gorges plays on the top unit with Hal Gill.
Boucher won his NHL debut game 5-3 over Atlanta last week, when his high-powered attack scored on two of five power plays.
Clearly missing point man Markov, the Canadiens are 0-for-6 with the man advantage this season, although they are a perfect 11-for-11 in penalty kills.
Price will be wearing the latest of his many masks, this one featuring pictures of two of his calf-roping heroes and with his name written across the front with a steer’s head for the I.